Harry Potter follows the Yellow Brick Road ...;Analysis;Briefing;News amp; Opinion

19th November 1999 at 00:00
100 years after the first Oz story, tastes have not changed greatly, judging by two giant bestsellers.

Geraldine Brennan reports ON THE brink of a new century, what the world needs is a novel about a courageous but "real" child who finds a gateway into the looking-glass world of magic, takes on the forces of evil and achieves a victory just decisive enough to leave the options open for a lucrative series.

This book's success changes the life of its previously unknown author. There's an outcry from the fans during the seemingly endless wait for the next volume, but fortunately the potential of the new fictional world is endless. Soon adults as well as children are clamouring for the next story, setting up fan clubs, packing out author events. Only a few killjoys - sniffy critics and censors - dare to spoil the party.

The book in question is, of course, the tale of Dorothy and friends on the Yellow Brick Road, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L Frank Baum. Early reviews of the book compared it with the Alice stories and it was the best-selling title of 1900 in the United States, with almost 25,000 copies sold in the first two weeks. There were only 1,000 hardback copies printed of the first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (many of these are in public libraries and will eventually be worth more than the library buildings; the paperback sold 30,000 copies in the first year).

These two books are landmarks in children's publishing a century apart: what do they tell us about how our view of children and their books has changed since 1900?

Oz was a big break for Baum, who started off publishing his own newspaper in upstate New York, then worked with varying degrees of success as a salesman, general store owner, chicken breeder, crime reporter and window dresser. He really wanted to write plays, and the Broadway musical based on his book (with Toto replaced by a cow called Imogene - how did she fit into Dorothy's basket?) was the top US show for the next decade.

He wrote 14 Oz books before his death in 1919 in Hollywood and his publisher kept them coming (there are 40 "official" Oz titles). Only the earliest ones are readable and Judy Garland's name is more often linked with the Emerald City than Baum's, thanks to the 1939 MGM film.

The Oz books were denounced as part of the communist threat in the 1940s because of Baum's socialist leanings and their vaguely utopian setting (more recent critics have read them as an attack on consumerism, a representation of male anxiety and a celebration of the frontier spirit), then in the 1950s fantasy series generally fell out of favour with US children's librarians.

But Baum still has his fans in the International Wizard of Oz Club, with its centennial conference coming up in Bloomington, Indiana, in July 2000. Joel Chaston, English professor at Southern Missouri State University, is compiling the academic programme. He teaches an undergraduate course on the Oz books and their influence on popular culture. Baum's series has generated films, rock music, adult comics and spin-off novels which play with his ideas. "I can't think of many other books which have had this sort of impact on other literature and material culture - Alice and The Secret Garden are two examples," he says. "The book is fairly 'open' - people can read it to fit their own ideas and needs.

"Harry Potter is certainly another Oz. From a literary standpoint, both series have been criticised and censored. Both have some stylistic problems. Both create imaginary worlds which seem real to many readers. Both series have produced fanatical followers among adults. I have mixed feelings about both series, but there is a child part of me that responds to both."

Baum's tales of a socialist utopia were bought by middle-class parents for middle-class children who had little reason not to read. J K Rowling's first three Harry Potter novels (latest UK and Commonwealth sales 2.8 million, around 5 million in the US) have been bought by children who are consumers in their own right and the subjects of sophisticated marketing strategies. Young readers' enthusiasm for despatches from Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft has been perceived as a security blanket to soothe adults' anxieties about reading: children (at least the confident readers) are seen to be getting to the end of a longish book and to be eager for the next one despite distractions, while those who are less confident are encouraged to persevere by a sense of being at the centre of the Latest Big Thing.

Adults need reassurance on another front: they like to feel that they can keep in touch with the child's world view. Reading Harry Potter themselves does the job (Bloomsbury Children's Books has tactfully produced "adult" and "child" jackets for the paperbacks, for those who don't want to display their inner child on public transport). For the majority of the adult population that never reads children's fiction (although a lot of adult Harry Potter fans also like the Narnia series), the Harry Potter titles are now the only children's books that exist, much as for a few weeks this summer Thomas Harris's Hannibal was the only thriller, unless you knew anything about thrillers. It's social death not to have read Harry Potter or even to hint that X or Y is rather good too.

The critic Marina Warner, speaking at a recent conference on children's literature, said that our obsession with the child psyche has never been so great. Perhaps Harry Potter gives us a way into it.

The word in publishing is that one children's book taken seriously is better than none: Rowling's sales will give other new authors a greater chance of being published, encourage booksellers to take risks in stocking hardback fiction and make a greater choice of quality books more widely available. There are now people on the streets who do not say Enid Blyton when asked to name a children's author, which is something of a breakthrough: the next breakthrough will come when they can't choose between the 10 names that spring to mind.

Unlike Baum's later Oz titles (often written in desperate straits as he had spent the money from the earlier ones), the Harry Potter books progressively improve. The third and most interesting book, this year's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (possibly in line for the author's third Smarties Gold Award next month) introduced the mind-invading Dementors who can only be kept at bay by hope and optimism and suggested that the dark forces will be allowed more of a free rein in future.

But the security blanket is tucked in at Hogwarts too. The crystal ball confirms that no plot will be too spellbound to miss out the feast or the Quidditch match or the come-uppance for the school bully.

I certainly feel more secure in the knowledge that there will be a total of seven Potter books, not 40, and that J K Rowling will be writing them all herself because, the folklore tells us, she's got all the ideas in notebooks under her bed (I hope that bit's not true, and she's put them in the bank).

The website for the International Wizard of Oz fan club is: www.ozclub.org


Quidditch: six-a-side polo on broomsticks, played at dizzy heights with four balls (two Bludgers, a Quaffle and a Golden Snitch). A team comprises two Beaters, three Chasers and a Seeker. All clear?

The Sorting Hat: puts the new Hogwarts pupils into houses in an initiation ceremony. The houses are named after Hogwarts founders Godric Gryffindor, Helga Hufflepuff, Rowena Ravenclaw and Salazar Slytherin. Harry is in Gryffindor; the only other one worth remembering is Slytherin, which attracts pond life such as Draco Malfoy, Harry's adversary.

Voldemort: the chief of the dark forces, whose name (meaning "will of death", as Potter fan Marina Warner points out) wizards dare not mention.

Muggles: non-wizards, who can be decent sorts (like Harry's late mother) or not (like his grim guardians, the Dursleys).

Diagon Alley: the London shopping street catering for wizards.

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